Challenge: How Do I Prove Objective Morality?

Posted: February 14, 2012 by Amy Hall in God is Real, Truth Matters, Weekly Challenge

For the challenge this week, here’s a question sent to STR Place:

I believe that objective morality is one the strongest pieces of evidence for God. However, an Atheist approached me saying, “If morality is objective, how do you define murder and manslaughter? Where is the line? See? You can’t tell whether murder is right or wrong. So morality is subjective, even if you believe in God.”

How would I go about PROVING the objectivity of morals?

Go to it, STR Placers! How do you respond to this challenge? Give it a shot, and then we’ll hear Brett’s video answer on Thursday.

  1. The fact that the line between manslaughter and murder is vague does not mean there isn’t a difference between them, and it certainly doesn’t mean that morality is subjective, anymore than our disagreements on what is right or wrong show that morality is subjective. All it means is that our perception on what is right or wrong isn’t perfect.

    I would ask him “Let’s assume I can’t give a clear difference between them. How does that show that morality is subjective?” Would he say “Because if it was objective, we’d all agree,”? I doubt it, because there are a lot of objective things about the universe that we disagree on or can’t discern right now. There’s my 1 cent.

  2. Sam Harper says:

    I would say, “Look it! Let’s forget about the definition of ‘murder.’ If it’s ever wrong in any situation to take the life of another human being, regardless of what you call it, then there are objective moral values.”

  3. First I’d ask him to define what he means by objective morality. I think the problem is that he has a misunderstanding of what objective morality is. He seems to think that if objective morality exists, every person will agree on it and how it should be applied in every situation. This is not, however, what objective morality is.

    Just because there might be gray area between two different things, doesn’t mean neither of those things are objective. To borrow an example from Francis Beckwith, just because I can’t say precisely when stubble ends and a beard begins doesn’t mean I can’t distinguish between a bearded face and a shaven one.

    Objective morality is more about principles and not how it is applied in every individual case of infraction. For example, murder is objectively wrong. We wouldn’t therefore say that in every murder case that comes through court, every criminal convicted of the crime of murder deserves exactly the same punishment. Circumstances will always affect the sentence, but that doesn’t mean that murder isn’t always wrong. It is always wrong even if certain cases are treated differently.

    Finally it simply does not follow that if objective morality exists everyone will always agree.

  4. Kelly says:

    I would first define the difference between man mad law and morality. Those two are often used as synonyms when they are not. Man made laws are designed to keep order in the physical world and written by men, while morality is defined by God and extends from the physical world to our spiritual state.

    From there I would probe into how they would define morality, as opposed to just knowing what they don’t define as morality. Assuming they say morality is defined by the individual, and is subjective and changing, I would simply ask them “are you sure about that”. I would then ask “so you are saying another person’s definition of morality is as valid as yours?” If they say yes the trap has been laid. From there I can take their claim to the logical conclusion that if mortality were subjective we could not make laws that define what is or is not acceptable. If a man does not believe murder is immoral how can we punish him when his definition of morality is as valid as ours.

    At that point the person who believes in subjective morality has a dilemma they can not easily get out of without redefining what subjective means.

  5. Elliot Neff says:

    Of course at the onset of this conversation, a red flag should go up. We must define our terms.

    What does the skeptic/Atheist mean when he says “objective morality”? I recall at one point having a conversation with my AP US History teacher who brought up a similar objection in our conversation. He declared, “Elliot, I think that objective morality is a great idea, but it’s simply not realistic. What about war? The Ten Commandments tells us ‘Thou shalt not kill’. So, is it right or wrong to kill in that situation? There’s simply no clear-cut answer to it. Morality must be subjective.”

    In these cases, the skeptic seems to employ the term “objective morality” interchangeably with the notion of “clarity” or “how obvious someone’s intent was”. I think we need to take a step back and agree on a clear definition of “objective morality”. A good definition that I think we should use is as follows: Objective moral values are values which are valid and binding regardless as to whether we believe in them or not.

    With this definition of objective morality, it becomes apparent that the skeptic is confused. Situations are not always clear-cut and obvious in nature. Of course we’re not always sure as to what someone’s intentions were who was convicted with manslaughter. Perhaps they really did mean to intentionally kill that person. Then again, perhaps they are completely innocent and were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. However, that does not in any way allow you to conclude logically that therefore there is NO objective right or wrong in a given situation. Confusion does not amount to absence.

    In fact, the Atheist’s objection in the original example is actually self-defeating. In order to even utter the terms “murder” and “manslaughter”, one must necessarily recognize that there is a objective standard on the basis of which we can differentiate between those two terms.

    Overall though– the point is this: in every situation there is always a right and a wrong decision to be made; There are values there that are valid and binding whether we believe in them or not. If we are confused about what actually happened or what someone’s intentions really were, it does not allow us to throw away objective moral values completely.

    Here’s a quick illustration: You may see someone on the news giving away tons of money, food, or clothing to an orphanage somewhere in some third-world country. You have no idea what their intentions are, but it looks good. However, that person may have tons money and is simply giving away a few resources to build themselves up and make themselves look generous in the eyes of the public back in America. So, although it looks good on the outside, it really is a prideful gesture. So, is this right or wrong? Remember– you don’t know for sure what their intentions are.
    Would it be logical to conclude that therefore there are no moral objective values in that situation? Is there no true right or wrong? Of course there is! Everyone should recognize that there is simply confusion about that person’s intentions. That is the only issue called into question here– not whether objective moral values really do exist.

    Hopefully that helps…

  6. Adrian Urias says:

    Uh… their argument is a non-sequitur, their conclusion does not follow from their argument. Because I can’t give a definition of something, therefore it has no nature? I dare whoever gives me this challenge to give me the definition of a chair. lol.

    If something is subjective (or relative), then it is about a subject. When we ask the question, “what is the line between murder and manslaughter” or a chair and a floor, the question we are asking is not about personal or individual subjects. Its about the nature of murder and manslaughter. Hence, not subjective/relative.

    Also, lets assume their right. Lets say we cant give a good definition and it is therefore relative (lol). What follows? That all morality is relative because some of it is? Nope. That seems like an invalid inference. Its like saying because some people are men, therefore all people are men.

    Happy Valentines Day all!!!

  7. Dawn says:

    I don’t think this really answers the challenge, but here’s my two cents: Only if morality IS objective is it even possible to attempt to distinguish between murder and manslaughter. If morality is merely subjective, the question is irrelevant because there is really no such thing as murder (taking an innocent human life without proper justification) – there is only killing (taking a life).

  8. Tom Loghry says:

    “If morality is objective, how do you define murder and manslaughter? Where is the line? See? You can’t tell whether murder is right or wrong. So morality is subjective, even if you believe in God.”

    I contend that the line can be seen. Murder is a pre-meditated action to kill or injure(that could accidentally lead to death) an innocent person. Manslaughter is committed when one does not pre-meditatively determine to injure or kill someone that is innocent.

    Also, the appearance of subjectivity WITHIN morality does not disprove the existence of morality itself. It simply shows that there may be erring or slight differences within. The real question at is “does morality itself truly exist?”
    Within major league baseball, there are many teams. Each team has a manager that has his own coaching style, placing importance in different areas and less in others than perhaps some of his fellow coaches. What remain at the core however, are the basics that are common to all baseball teams. All coaches train their teams in batting, pitching, fielding, to PLAY THE GAME OF BASEBALL. Though there are slight differences between the teams in how they approach the game, they are all playing baseball.
    In the same way, though there may be slight differences concerning morality, the same basic form of morality exists throughout the world. No one would agree it is morally permissible to kill someone without just cause. What is justifiable may be debated, but all would agree that to kill someone without just cause is to commit murder.
    Ultimately this debate reduces down to the ontological status of morality itself. Slight subjectivity within morality itself would still leave one asking where the basics of morality find their basis, and without God there is no basis.

    Brett, sometimes I comment as tlogical. You get it? Tom Loghry, tlogical? Yeah, that’s just how I roll.

  9. Kippy Myers says:

    On a related issue, Copan said that this confuses the DIFFICULTY of finding truth with the POSSIBILITY of finding truth.

  10. I find it hard to “prove” objective morality. It’s an immaterial thing though it’s every bit as objective as the computer i’m typing on. I usually lean towards questions that point towards morality’s objectivity.

    Questions like is it ever ok to torture innocent babies for fun or is it ever ok to take another man’s wife for no reason besides you want to have sex with her. Or is it ever ok for a grown man to rape 12 year olds for no reason other than pleasure. These types of questions are really tough to answer in the negative, and people go to great lengths to come up with situations in which these things would be ok….then they have a tough time when i mention that i already gave the scenario and i want to know if it’s ever ok in the specific scenario that i gave.

    But one thing i’ve noticed about objectve morality from listening to people like Sam Harris, or Scott Klifton (TheoreticalBull****) on youtube is that they notice that different types of people see morality differently and will note this as evidence that morality is subjective. One thing we have to make sure we keep separated are a) things that exist and b) our subjective experience of those things. In our subjective experience we may all experience the color blue differently, or the sensation of roughness, or the experience of flavor. All of these are speak to our experience of things and similarly morality can be experienced differently by different people. One person may feel it’s ok to sleep with multiple partners, objectively we can say that is wrong because morality exists outside of our experience. Those questions a gave above help illustrate that fact.

    • Sam Harper says:

      Here’s how I’d argument for objective morality:

      1. If there are no objective moral values, then our cognitive faculties are deluding us in regard to items of synthetic a priori assumptions about the world.
      2. If our cognitive faculties are deluding us about our synthetic a priori assumptions about the world, then we cannot trust them when they tell us about the reliability of our sensory perceptions, our memories, the uniformity of nature, etc.
      3. We can trust our cognitive faculties when they tell us about the reliability of our sensory perceptions, our memories, the uniformity of nature, etc.
      4. Therefore, there are objective moral values.

      I defended this argument in a debate several years ago, which I posted on my blog here:

  11. Brian says:

    Like others have previously stated, I would ask how you define Objective and Subjective Morality. I would also qualify that neither can be proven beyond a “shadow of doubt” but we can attempt to show that one or the other is more “reasonable”. In order to do this we must first examine the issue of truth. Is it absolute or is it relevant? If truth is absolute, it is applicable to all people, all places, and all times. If truth is relevent, it is whatever we want it to be. Therefore if you believe that truth is absolute than you would also believe that there is objective morality. If truth is relevant, than there is subjective morality.

    This argument, in my opinion, presents more problems for the athiest. They will argue that we are nothing more than a product of chance and natural selection. They will argue that it is through the process of evolution that non-material (feelings, emotions, morals) changes have been passed along through are ancestors and have somehow been introduced into our genetic makeup. If this is indeed true, these non-material changes would be clearly objective because they are now part of our DNA. Therefore they cannot be subjective. Yet, as you have demonstrated, this athiest claims that morality is subective.

    Specific to murder and manslaughter. I believe they are both objectively wrong. What’s subjective is the reason, motives, and punishment that goes along with them.

  12. DoubtingEric says:

    I have been waiting for a good answer to this question. So far, I haven’t heard a good one. Will check this out when I get home.

  13. jshark says:

    By definition there is no such thing as subjective morality. Subjective morality would exist for each individual person. All morality is objective. The real question is how do you prove absolute morality. Its pretty easy to prove relative morality. Even defining absolute morality is a challenge. It would require the definer to “objectively” step outside their own relative morality to observe and accept a differing absolute morality. How would that even happen?